I just made a small pot of coffee to sip while I write. It's early in the morning and the ritual of coffee-making brings me a sense of "okay now, it's time to get started on my day." Kettle, filter, grinding beans, my favourite cup, the scent, the time it takes to brew - all are a part of the ritual.
This is small but it's valuable to me. When out of town at a hotel, I may check out the nearest coffee shops the night before to see where I can find a cup in the morning. At my sister's, I can look through her cupboards. I found a packet of hot chocolate the last time I was there and substituted that for the coffee. I may think it's about the coffee, but when I have to change it up, I realize it's not. The ritual is there to support my 'starting the day.'
We set rituals in place and pay attention to them because we want to underscore the meaning the of experience. The rituals may seem superficial, but they are the exact opposite of that. They help us attend to the meaning underneath by giving us a structure around the meaning.
I lost sight of that when I first started developing my own spiritual life. I thought the rituals themselves were superficial. I discarded them. And then immediately I started building rituals of my own to support my spiritual life. I set up a meditation cushion. Said a few words before each meditation. When in the trees and listening to spirit, I held my hands a certain way because it seemed to support the practice. I felt by taking my own approach I was being more honest. But I discovered differently. When I went back to church, I didn't want to say words that I didn't believe in or participate in mandatory rituals that had been in place long past their 'best before' dates. To resolve that, I looked to the meaning behind the words and activities. What I found surprised me. The meaning had been there all along. Some of these old religious institutions have been going for a very long time. There's a good reason why they have persisted.
Some of the joy we take in ritual is about the pagentry and theatre. A coronation is a ritual. A wedding is a ritual. The grandness of the event gives us all, participants and spectators alike, a way to set the experience more firmly into our lives.
I used to eat the brown M&Ms last. That was a ritual that added depth to the treat. Setting the table with the good dishes at Thanksgiving sets the tone of the importance of the event. One of my favourite rituals is baking a birthday cake, cooling and frosting it, putting a coin inside the cooked cake, sprinkling it with colourful sugar beads, then presenting it to the birthday girl and singing while she blows out the candles.
When I step outside each morning and listen to the sounds around me, it helps me reconnect with the whole world. When I light a candle for a friend, it helps me bring the emotions I am feeling into a positive physical form. When I feel overwhelmed, making a cup of tea is a small ritual that can bring me back into myself.
While the rituals themselves are not the meaning, they are not superficial. We need them. We love them. We use them all the time.
First published October 2014 in my free monthly email newsletter, Starry Night. Sign up here.